Monday morning. The judge's gavel slammed against the block of hard cherry wood, causing Sinclair to jump in her seat, despite the fact she was paying rapt attention to what was going on around her. At least she thought she was, but her mind had drifted to her empty belly for a moment as the sound of the gavel startled her. The sweet smell of the Murphy Oil on the wood, the scent of somebody's mama's heavy perfume settling down on top of a working girl's funk, and the whispers of victims anxiously awaiting the justice they felt they deserved all combined to ruin a perfectly good appetite. Good thing too, because Sinclair hadn't a clue when she would eat again. The cabinets were getting thinner with each day Debonair, her elder brother, was gone, and now, according to this judge, he was gonna be gone a while longer. Good and bad . . . good against bad, everything going on around Sinclair during that criminal court session had her attention.
“Five years?” she mumbled under her breath. She stared at the back of Debonair's woolly head. Sinclair was hoping he would turn around so she could read his expression, maybe guess what he was thinking about all of this going down this way. But, no, he didn't budge. He just stood there with his wide shoulders straight and tall, as if he had no shame in his game, no remorse for the crime they said he'd committed.
When the judge dismissed Debonair from his presence, the bailiff's pushing against Debonair's stiff stance was the only indication that he felt anything about all this. Maybe he had gone numb, and that's why the bailiff had to push him again to move him along.
“Five years?” she asked again under her breath, while the judge's voice went into a blur of words and sounds. The shackles around Debonair's ankles jingled slightly as he moved through the doorânever once looking back. “What am I gon' do?” Sinclair asked in an undertone.
“The first thing you gon' do is get my money, baby girl,” the man sitting next her whispered.
At first Sinclair couldn't move. The whiff of the spicy hot breath filled her nose, causing it to tingle. But it was the tone of the voice that nearly caused her heart to beat out of her chest. She turned, only to see the mouth full of gold fronts smiling wickedly at her.
“I wants the money your brother owes me,” the ugly man said.
Sinclair tried to place his face. He had big, bloodshot yellow-tinged eyes, and his scarred cheeks made him look like he'd seen the business end of a kitchen steak knife. His black skin had some red underneath it, and his hair was slicked back. But he was nobody she wanted to look at a long time or do business with, yet he clearly had business with her.
“Money?” she asked, keeping her voice low.
“Yeah, you know,
. Whateva ya call it, I wan' it. Fo' sho, Deb can't pay me back, but look here, li'l sista, you gonnaâfo' sho. One way or the other.”
Sinclair's heart was beating so hard, she thought perhaps the sound was messing with her hearing, so she asked, “Pay you?”
The gavel came down on the next case. It was another quickie, another black man going into the system. His baby mama, sitting a few seats over, broke down crying. She'd brought her baby to the courtroom, as if that would help. The brotherman got twenty-five to life, right in front of his child.
The man sitting next to Sinclair slid from his seat, like a snake moving from under one rock to another, breaking his smile only long enough to suck the moisture from his sparkling mouth jewelry.
“I'll be in touch,” he said.
Sinclair's eyes squinted, showing nothing close to fear, though her heart was pounding. She looked around to see if anyone else had heard him. Maybe they had, maybe they hadn't, but by the looks of everyone in the courtroom that day, didn't nobody care neither way.
Slowly Sinclair rose and left the courtroom. She glanced up and down the hall to see if the gold-mouthed man was still anywhere, but he wasn't. Her show of bravery wasn't going to make it through another encounter with that guy, so she was just trying to get out and get home. There was too much to think about now, to do, and worrying about dude with the gold mouth wasn't at the top of her concerns.
Just then the bailiff called to her, “Hey, your brother wants to see you before we put him on the bus back to the jail.”
Again Sinclair looked around for the gold-mouthed man. If he was going to confront her again today, this would have been the perfect time for him to show himself. And she knew just what she would do too. She'd scream and holler to the cops to arrest him. But, of course, he was out of sight.
Slowly she followed the guard to where Debonair was being held.
“So now what?” she said to him. “I gotta stay with Tanqueray and her man, or worse, Unique and all of Bay Bay's kids? Hell, nah. This ain't gon' work, Deb.” Sinclair was talking fast. They only had a few minutes before he was to be taken away that morning to start his five years of forever. She wanted to ask him so many things, like, why he hadn't bathed or washed his hair, but first things first.
“Listen, girl, you gon' stay with one of dem.” He glanced over his shoulder slightly and whispered, “'Cuz it might not be safe in the house right now.”
“Aww, damn!” Sinclair was losing her grip on the brave front.
Debonair held up his large hand to calm her. “You just told me what that nigga with the gold said to you. So stop tryin'-a be grown and do what I'm telling you. Just get your shit together and get to Unique's place. Yeah, Unique's place'll be best. Go tonight. I don't like that fool Tanqueray is fuckin' with, so, yeah, you get to Unique's tonight.”
“Who is that gold-mouthed dude, Deb? And why can't I go home? I don't want to go overâ”
“Stop arguing with me.”
“I don't have any money. Do you? Where is it, so I can pay him? Maybe I can get some money, with a little job. Maybe I can just pay him. Why can't I go home? How much do we owe?”
“We?” Debonair looked around and then back at her. “Goddamn, Sin, you are”âDebonair bit his lip. “You need to grow up. Maybe I was wrong for doing what Mama asked, sending you to that school around all them uppity people because . . .” His eyes filled with water.
Sinclair wondered now if he was sad or scared.
“You don't know nuthin' about nuthin'.”
Sinclair knew one thingâShe wanted an answer. Debonair had always given her answers to her questions. It was only now she realized that maybe she hadn't asked enough questions. “Why can't I just give him some money?”
“There ain't no money. Now you go over Unique's. Just do what I say,” Debonair barked in a low tone.
Sinclair knew he was serious. She nodded but in her heart knew she didn't plan to obey. Seeing Debonair all broken up over this was crazy. It was just money Gold Mouth wanted. She'd already decided to call him that, since Debonair hadn't told her who he was. She would just get a job or something and pay him. She was old enough to get a summer job. Up till now she had just waited it out, but now that Debonair wasn't coming home anytime soon, to her it was just that simple. Besides, how much money could it be?
“I mean it, Sin. You don't know nuthin' about nuthin', and I was trying like hell to keep it that way.” Deb wiped the fresh tear that appeared in his reddened eyes.
Was he crying?
Sinclair wondered. “Deb, I'ma be all right,” she assured.
Deb nodded before taking a big cleansing breath, as if determined not to let any tears fall.
“We gotta go now,” the guard interrupted.
“I'll come see you on Saturday,” Sinclair promised.
“Yeah, yeah. Tell Unique to come wit' cha. And you be careful,” he said, reminding her of Gold Mouth.
Sinclair rushed out, all but running to the bus stop. Her mind fell onto her older sister, Tanqueray, who was supposed to be filling in, taking care of the money and stuff, while Debonair went through all this. But Tanqueray had only made a mess of things.
Got shit getting turned off
. Sinclair tossed back her past-the-shoulder, kinky, sandy-blond hair in a wave of frustration, thinking about that morning. She had got up that morning and flipped the light switch over and over. Nothing came on. “And now got this gold-mouthed fool on my neck. Damn! I'm gonna have to get a job, fo' sho,” she grumbled, rethinking her options.
Maybe I should just go stay with Unique in the West End. Might be a little safer,
Sinclair's sensible inner voice urged. But her stubborn voice argued back.
Leave my mama's house? Never! And the West End ain't safer than nothing!
Where they lived in the Palemos, a little community just outside Palo Alto, just slightly north-west of them sat Menlo Park. It was outside of this city, right on the western edgeâright before the good partâone would find the West End. It was a toss-up as to which area had more inner-city issues. Let those in the Palemos tell itâthe streets in the
(what the locals called it) rolled up respectfully after dark, and everyone then carried on quiet and peaceful-like. Let the folks in the
talk to you about living life, and they would tell you that the Palemos was all about family living and community. Let the folks in the
tell you about the West End, and they'd say it wasn't fit to die in.
As the bus came reluctantly to a stop in front of her, kicking up dirt and debris in her eyes and nose in its seeming irritation, the door opened with an angry
. The bus driver grinned lecherously, as was his normal look. He'd been flirting with her for weeks now, ever since she started making this trip to see her brother in the Richmond County jail by bus.
“When you gonna let me take you out, wit' cha fine, thick ass. You sho' is fine,” he stated, nodding at the other passengers coming aboard, flashing transfers, paying fares, and walking past her as she hung close to the pole closest to the front row of seats. She liked to stand in the front of the bus, so she could exit quickly in case something jumped off. The Palemos went on through to the West End (known by locals as the
), so sometimes them crazy folks from the W.E. were onboard. You just never knew when some kinda mess would be jumping off with them folks. People even fought among themselves in the West End. Sometimes Sinclair wasn't scared really, just prepared.
Gotta be prepared for something
, she thought, wondering instantly about her life. She had no idea what she would do now. She depended on Debonair to take care of her at least until she was eighteen. Sinclair's mind ran back to Tanqueray. Even at twenty-three, there was no way she was ready for the job. No wonder Debonair had taken on the responsibility of being her guardian since her mother died when she was fourteen. But then again, since he'd been gone, life had been changing and not for the best. It was way worse. Not only was he going to jail for dealing drugs, he was in debt to the drug man. “Damn,” she groaned, dropping her head slightly.
“What's wrong, baby girl? You lookin' hurt 'bout somethin',” the driver asked between passengers boarding.
“You . . . your ugly is hurtin' me,” she mumbled, her mood growing fouler by the moment.
“What you say, baby girl?” the driver asked, trying to sound cool, ready to mack. Obviously he thought he heard her say something other than what she said, because he was still grinning at her.
Sinclair squinted her green eyes as she focused on him.
“Umph, umph, umph. Ain't never seent no white girl with a full trunk like you got on you.” He bit his big ashy bottom lip, eyeing her up and down.
He was one of many who thought she was a white girl because of how light-skinned she was. But Sinclair had told him, and others, more than once, she was black. Clearly, he wasn't even tryin' to hear that.
“You know I'ma about see what we can do, you and me.”
Sinclair rolled her eyes at the ugly, old dude the way she'd seen Tanqueray do when approached by a man she felt to be out of her class. Sinclair liked going to the mall with Tanqueray and watching her diss men. Tanqueray always seemed so confident, the way Sinclair always remembered their mother. In fact, Tanqueray looked like her mother a lot, especially when she smiled.
Javina Nation. Mamaâthat's what they all called her, well, except for Tanqueray, who called her Mommy. It was almost as if the two of them had that kind of special relationship. Sinclair didn't mind because, in a way, each of them seemed to have their own special slot in her heart. Sinclair was the baby and therefore knew where she stood in relation to everybody else. Maybe Tanqueray did too, being the oldest of the girls. Tanqueray always seemed too confident, no matter how much wrong she did.
Oh yeah, speaking of that, I'm mad as hell at her right now
, Sinclair remembered, the sour taste in her mouth coming to her face.
Can't be giving her no props for shit. Tang is on my shit list, for real though, and if that heiffer ain't careful, we gonna come to blows next time we are in the same place
“You can't take me out.” Sinclair jerked her neck at the driver, giving him some of the hostility she felt toward Tanqueray. “You don't even know me.”
“Well, I need to, 'cuz you some tasty white . . .”
Just then the doors opened, and four young bucks got on. They had
written all over them.
“Holla,” the first boy said, moving past the driver and on to his seat, unloading his gear. “I'll get my transfer in a minute.”